'The solution to the term-time holidays problem is tour operators not hiking up their prices. Fat chance'

19th May 2016 at 15:08
Term-time holidays
Headteachers and politicians have a tough job attempting to navigate this perennial problem, writes veteran education journalist Richard Garner in his latest fortnightly TES column

Pity the schools and the government - they're caught between a rock and a hard place over the latest court ruling about whether parents can take their children out of school during term time.

The High Court backed magistrates in ruling that a father, Jon Platt, had no case to answer for taking his six-year-old daughter out of school for a trip to Florida because she had a regular attendance record – overall, she had been at school for more than 93 per cent of the time that she should have been.

Put another way, though, a 93 per cent attendance record means a child is absent for one day every three weeks. I would argue that this nothing to write home about. It means an absence of just under three weeks in a school year.

Imagine if every parent believed their child were entitled to that kind of attendance record. It would be a nightmare for the teacher as he or she tried to set work when they returned to make sure they kept up in class,

On the other hand, pity the poor parents, too – especially, I emphasise, the poor parents. The cost of a holiday abroad can double between term time and the school holidays – in one case, a trip to Majorca went up from £1,876 in term time to £4, 028 in the summer holidays. It means, basically, you can only afford a holiday-time holiday if you are rich.

Then there's the government. It has the laudable aim of trying to ensure that all children have a good school attendance record. Under its regulations, an attendance record of less than 90 per cent can mean a pupil is bordering on being a consistent truant. It is now considering strengthening the guidance it gives to schools. The trouble is, whatever formula it comes up with is bound to face legal scrutiny. At present, the 1944 Education Act says children should have "regular attendance" at school. The trouble is, who defines what is regular? Answer: a judge or magistrate who doesn't have the problem of ensuring that those who are granted leave keep up in class when they return.

Up until 2013, headteachers had the discretion to grant up to 10 days' leave in term-time in exceptional circumstances. Again, exceptional circumstances were not defined. It might, though, be worth revisiting that area because I would imagine it would be more difficult for a court to define whether a headteacher was using his or her discretion wisely than to declare that a child was entitled to a term-time holiday because of a regular attendance record.

Of course, the simpler solution might be to put some moral pressure on the tour operators not to jack up the cost of their holidays so much during the summer break.  Fat chance of that, though. It has been tried by, among others, David Hart, former general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, and David Blunkett when he was education secretary. They made little progress.

The lady was for turning 

Good to see that the education secretary Nicky Morgan and the headteachers appear to be largely singing from the same hymn sheet again over academisationnow that the government has dropped its insistence on compulsory academisation for every school. Nothing to do with my last column, I'm sure.  It had become obvious from the strength of opposition to the proposal in Conservative party circles – both within local authorities and on the backbenches in the Commons – that it was a non-starter.

The timing of the announcement – on local election results day – caused a few eyebrows to be raised. The official line was that it was the first opportunity to make the announcement because of "purdah" – the rule by which you cannot make government announcements during an election period. If that is so, it raises the question of whether Nicky Morgan actually knew the U-turn was coming when she boldly defended the policy at the NAHT conference and got the heads in such a lather they voted to consider industrial action over it. On the other hand, if it really was thought to be a good day to bury bad news, it didn't really succeed on that score.

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years, and has been writing about education for more than three decades

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